by Msgr. Charles McGlinn
Burying and praying for the dead are among the corporal and spiritual works of mercy Pope Francis asked us to carry out during this Year of Mercy.
Throughout my priesthood, ministry to the grieving and bereaved has been very important to me. Of course, as Catholics, we believe that this life is not all there is — that we are created to share the glory and joy of being with Jesus forever after our deaths.
And so, death can be a welcome event from that perspective.
However, when we lose someone in death whom we love, we experience a profound sadness and grief that grips our very soul. When my own parents passed away, I experienced that sadness and grief, even though I knew that my mother and father were with Jesus.
Among those to whom I have ministered who ache with sorrow are parents who lose a child or someone who has lost a spouse after many years of marriage. Sometimes the only thing you can do for them is simply be with them and hold their hands.
But the Catholic funeral liturgy can also speak powerfully in our loss. It is here we encounter our compassionate Lord who wept when he saw the sorrow of Martha and Mary grieving at the tomb of their brother and his friend Lazarus.
The shortest verse in the New Testament and one of the most poignant is that verse, “Jesus wept” (Jn 11:35). We know that Jesus is with us in our sorrow and that he feels our grief. The liturgy celebrates that compassionate love of Jesus for our loved one and for ourselves. It is in the Eucharist that we encounter Jesus as we approach him with hearts wrenched with sorrow. There, we find the beginning of healing and hope.
There, we can reflect on his mercy and his promise of life eternal with him in heaven: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered the imagination what awaits those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). When we consider the joy our departed loved one now experiences, it almost seems selfish that we would want our loved one back.
As Catholics, we believe in the communion of saints. A source of comfort in our sorrow is the knowledge, through our faith, that our loved one is united with us in a new and profound way. We are truly united with all who are in heaven.
This unity is experienced powerfully in the Eucharist. There, we encounter our risen Lord, who has gathered our departed loved ones to himself. In him, we are one with our beloved dead.
Our faith also teaches us that at our own deaths, we will be reunited with all our departed loved ones in Jesus. We will see them again and embrace them once more with untold joy.
Of course, this awareness requires faith. Faith is certainly a gift from God. It is his special invitation to be united with him.
Faith is also our decision. We can accept or reject this invitation as we can accept or reject any gift. I don’t know what people do without faith when they lose someone they love. Death is then accompanied with unmitigated sorrow. But with faith, we catch a glimmer of the infinite love and mercy of God who loves us more than we love ourselves.
I love those words of Jesus in the Book of Revelation: “Listen, I stand knocking at your door, hoping you will open up and let me in, so that I may dine with you, and you with me” (3:20).
Death is that final knock of Jesus at the door of our lives. Our faith opens that door, so we may enter and join in the banquet of eternal life.